Making Frenemies: Kobo, Easons & Ebooks In Ireland

20131030_192630Easons, which once had ambitions to launch its own ereader, has joined forces with Kobo. The deal will see Easons selling Kobo devices in its 60 stores and has attracted little negative comment unlike Waterstones deal with Amazon last year. In fact it seems, so far, to have been pretty universally welcomed in the Irish trade.

Easons has, despite the aforementioned ambitions, chosen the path of least expense with regard to making its ebook offering credible and coherent. That meant, although its e-store concept was attractive, it was selling several different brands of device and its ebook platform was off the shelf and was not always as smooth as possible. What’s more its options were somewhat limited. Tesco has been selling Kindle ereaders since before last Christmas at prices well under €100 and Amazon has spent hundreds f millions making those devices and the ecosystem surrounding them, very user-friendly. The Waterstones Kindle match-up has sat oddly with the trade, the deal has also put Kindle ereaders and tablets in front of readers in many places. So Easons has been faced by deep pocketed rivals and the most likely platform partner already pretty much wrapped up with rivals.

We don’t yet know how successful this move to partner with Kobo will be. Easons is still offering Sony ereaders from its website (on 2nd November) and Kobo’s ebook offering not yet live through the retailer’s website either. Even so, Kobo has launched a new consumer facing ebook site for Ireland which will surely power Easons ebook store when the partnerships rolls out properly. The site’s not perfect yet, for instance, I can’t yet find out where to but one of the company’s tablets in Ireland yet, but that’s an easily resolved issue.

Irish facing stores are a rarity in the ebook space, on Kindle, users must choose between buying their ebooks from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. While the process is fine and workable, it still presents pricing challenges and means picking out Irish bestsellers can be hard. Apple offers an Irish facing ebook store but there’s every indicator that sales through the store have been relatively low.

The bigger question for me is what will all this mean for ebooks in Ireland. The last year or so has seen most Irish publishers begin to take ebooks very seriously with some publishers quietly indicating that digital sales are no accounting for double-digit percentages of units sold (though often a lower percentage of revenue given the disparity in price). The best indications I’ve seen suggest that while fiction is the leader, there are some fine performances  in non-fiction too and that backlist is proving its worth yet again.

“One in five books sold on Easons.com are ebooks”

Interestingly, Conor Whelan, Easons MD, said at the launch of the Kobo/Easons partnership (which took place at the launch of Kobo’s new Irish offices, itself during the Dublin Web Summit) that: “One in five books sold on Easons.com are ebooks” a fact that sailed over many people’s heads, but struck me as a very nice nugget of information. It indicates that Easons is doing much better at selling ebooks on its own than we might previously have imagined, thus suggesting the Kobo partnership might really drive ebook take up and sales in Ireland if it can connect with readers.

I’m intrigued that the offering will include more that just the ereaders. Kobo’s tablet offering is really quiet good (in the non-iPad league that is) and at €149.99, the Kobo Arc 7 will provide Easons with a reason to get non-readers in the door that the ereaders on their own simply will not. In fact at that kind of price point, the tablet may well be the most attractive part of the device line up.

Kobo has found a strong partner to grow mind-share and market share in Easons. It does have a very large presence on the high streets of Ireland as well as an impressive brand and awareness in Irish readers mindsets. The company also runs highly successful media campaigns in the run-up to Christmas and ereaders and tablets will be a leading gift category yet again in 2013 and ebooks still have lots of room for growth in Ireland.

The problem is that Kindle is dominant and massively so, and will not be pushed aside  easily. It will require a by a determined new brand and dogged execution both on the device side of things (which means hoping Easons can deliver) and on the ebook sales and promotion side of things (which means work for Kobo and its staff).  It does seem to me though that even if Kobo only manages to build a secure second player position, it could be to both its and Easons advantage. It the companies can make it work, we might begin to see the kinds of percentages that the US & UK have been seeing over the last year or 25-30% units being sold in digital form.

Here’s hoping!